Read an Excerpt
By Nicholas Mosley
Dalkey Archive Press I: Eleanor
Copyright © 1990 Nicholas Mosley.
All rights reserved.
If we are to survive in the environment we have made for ourselves, may we have to be monstrous enough to greet our predicament?
In the winter of 1918-19 when I, Eleanor Anders, was nine years old, I was living with my parents in an apartment in the Cranachstrasse in a respectable area of Berlin. My father was a lecturer in philosophy at Berlin University: my mother was a left-wing socialist politician. My earliest memories of Berlin are to do with the ending of the 1914-18 warsoldiers keeping to the shadows with their eyes cast down, the impression that they were looking for even more terrible events round some corner. At the very end of the war there was the socialist revolution that my mother's friends had for so long foretold; civilians with rifles suddenly appeared in the streetsmen in thick dark suits with caps and bowler hats who stood and stared at you as you went past, who clattered to and fro hanging on to the sides of cars and lorries. It was as if, after all, they might find a new enemy to provide from defeat some futile victory. It was at this time, I think, that I began to have the impression of myself as needing to be somehow invisible to people in the streets, if I were not to be caught by whatever it was round some corner.
The apartment in which my parents and I lived in the Cranachstrasse was at the top of a building at the centre of which therewas a wide spiral staircase that seemed like something placed in water for the construction of a bridge: there was a skylight at the top through which thin sunshine filtered; the bottom was murky as if at the depths of the sea. In the streets an impression of being at a depth continued: the walls of high apartment buildings rose like rock-faces on either side; the lorries and cars that went past festooned with men with rifles were like lobsters or crabs with heavy claws. It was necessary to get past these to climb up the spiral staircase to our apartment where there was airiness and light. High narrow windows jutted up into a slightly sloping roof; walls were panelled in a soft wood which was like the lining of my father's boxes of cigars. My earliest memories of our apartment are of the evenings when I would sit with my father in his study and he would read me stories from mythology or from children's magazines. There was a vogue at the time for an early type of science-fiction magazine, and I suppose it was from these that my mind picked up some of its lasting images. When I was in my father's study it would seem that we were in the cabin or gondola of an airship; we were gliding above the rooftops of the grey and watery city; my father was the captain and I was his mate; we were looking for somewhere to land where we would make a new home, or perhaps we would carry on forever like that bird I suppose that first flew out of the ark.
My father was a tall man with a pale drooping moustache and short fair hair that was brushed up so that he often seemed amazed or even about to shoot upwards like a rocket. The other occupants of our apartment or airship, or ark, or whatever were Magda the cook, Helga the parlourmaid and my governess Miss Henne who came in to teach me each day. There was also, of course, my mother.
My mother was a small dark woman with flashing eyes: she was Jewish (my father was not): she came from a family who lived near the frontier with Poland. My mother was the driving force or power-house in whatever my father and I dreamed of as our lofty world; it was around her that there was the clatter and hum of the machinery to do with the running of the airship the obtaining of fuel and food, which was difficult in the last years of the war. There were also the occasional meetings of my mother's political associates. My father and I would sit behind closed doors and listen to the business of practical life going on. I sometimes wondered or it seems to me now that my father and I must have wondered where in fact does power reside within something like an airship? Is it in the engine-room, or with the people who sit with their knobs and levers and dream that they are in control?
I suppose not much is remembered now about German politics during those years. The war was brought to an end in November 1918 by an almost bloodless revolution in Germany; an alliance was made between the moderate socialists and the conservative militarists who had been running the war; one of the aims of the alliance was to keep out of power the extreme left-wing socialists, who were the people around my mother. There was skirmishing in the streets between government forces and the extremists who felt they had been cheated of their true revolution; but there was a general exhaustion in the aftermath of war, and there was dissent even among the extremists. The questions at issue among the extremists were: should a revolution be organised with central control should there be tactical planning and the making of alliances and concessions or should the proper business of revolution be left to the spontaneous uprising of the masses (it is impossible to write of left-wing politics without the jargon!)? Karl Marx had foretold (or it was believed he had foretold) that history would in time inevitably lead to the take-over of power by the masses, so might not attempts at human planning only divert the course of history from going on the way that was just what was desired? Was it not the moderate socialists who had planned and schemed and see how they had betrayed the revolution! This was the argument of the extremists. Should it not be the business of leadership just to keep the doctrine pure and to analyse accurately what in the jargon was referred to as the `concrete situation' and then, would not history be free to go its own spontaneous way?
These were the arguments of Rosa Luxemburg the most popular and most bewitching of the leaders of the extremists. My mother was a disciple or devotee of Rosa Luxemburg. Rosa Luxemburg came from the same Jewish background as my mother. She was a small bright-eyed woman who seemed sometimes to purr, and sometimes to spit, but always to have claws like a cat.
Some of the most striking of my earliest memories are to do with the meetings that my mother's friends used to hold in our apartment. Into the quiet world that my father and I dreamed of as our airship there came, climbing from the depths of the streets, men in thick dark suits and stiff white collars, women in long skirts and blouses buttoned up to their chins. The men would stand in the hallway looking for somewhere to hang their hats; the women would embrace my mother underneath their hats which were like nests or umbrellas. They would flow from the hallway into the dining-room where they would stand or sit round the table; they would talk or shout and make speeches, sometimes singly and sometimes all at once; they would pass bits of paper like food to and fro across the table. Perhaps this image came mostly from the sounds they made: on the few occasions on which my father opened the dining-room door and I caught a glimpse of them, they would seem to freeze, turning to the door as if alarmed or posing for a photograph. Then after the meeting they would flow out into the hall again and the men would look for their hats and the women would be putting their arms again round my mother. I suppose I came to see the grown-up world as containing creatures who just behaved in this way who clattered through streets hanging on to cars and then came together and stood and shouted round dining-room tables; and then were suddenly silent, as if they needed to be caught within a photograph.
My father did not play much part in these activities. He and I would sit in his study and listen, or occasionally get glimpses. I would think So if this is the grown-up world, what is my father then? I understood that he was sympathetic to what my mother and her friends were trying to achieve, but that he did not think they were going about it the right way. I wondered But are he and I going the right way with our stories about our airship?
I would try to talk to my father about this: I would say `But what do you think my mother's political friends should do: should they do nothing? Should they fight? What is this word that you say they use "spontaneous"?'
My father would say `I think the trouble is that they don't have the ability to see just what it is they are doing.'
I would say `Is that difficult?'
My father would laugh and say `Yes, it's difficult.'
Once or twice Rosa Luxemburg herself came to the apartment. These meetings seemed more orderly because she did most of the talking. Her voice was sometimes a purr and sometimes a spitting. I would wonder She is trying to make them see just what it is she is doing? My father once said `She could make a snake rise up from a basket.'
I thought What it is difficult for them to see is that they are snakes rising up from baskets?
After these meetings at which Rosa Luxemburg had been present, my mother would come into the study where my father and I were sitting and her eyes would be shining and she would say `We will win!'
My father would say `Yes, my dear, but what is it you think you will win?'
At the end of December 1918 I was sent away with my governess, Miss Henne, to stay with my mother's relations in the provinces. I understood that some uprising of the extremists had been planned in Berlin. I gathered this much at the time, though I learned much of the details of course only later. The planned uprising had been agreed to reluctantly by Rosa Luxemburg: she did not believe in planning but she believed in activity: but what does a revolutionary do when there is no spontaneous activity? Rosa Luxemburg had hoped that the masses would come out in a general strike; but when there was no general strike what had to be encouraged, it seemed, were bits and pieces of violence.
I said to my father `You mean, I am being sent to the country because it is dangerous?'
My father said `Your mother wants you to go to the country. Who knows what will be dangerous!'
I thought But as the captain of our airship, are you not in charge?
Or you mean, your business is to see just what we are doing.
In the town in the provinces where my mother's relations lived there were tall bearded men with long black coats and wide-brimmed hats; they spoke a strange language; they seemed to spend much of their time reading. The women were rounded and tightly strapped into their clothes as if they were things about to be cooked; they would dab at their faces with bits of lace or doth, although it was very cold. These people seemed to be of quite a different kind from those I was used to at home: it was as though I had landed from my father's airship on a strange planet. This was another impression that I suppose formed in my mind at this time of people naturally forming self-contained and easily distinguishable groups: perhaps because like this they need not see what was happening when there were things like dangerous uprisings
But my father and I, we were above all this in our lonely airship?
My father used to laugh when I said such things: he would say `But you cannot talk like that!'
I would say `Why not?'
He would say `Perhaps people have guns that can shoot down our airship!'
Soon after we had arrived to stay with my mother's relations in the provinces my governess, Miss Henne, seemed to have a fit. She had had a headache; she stayed in bed; then one morning she was shrieking and rolling her eyes and going rigid. My great aunts and cousins came in and stood by her bed; they too raised their eyes and waggled their heads; one of the men in a long black coat read a bit from one of their books above Miss Henne, but it seemed to be this sort of thing that was making Miss Henne have her fit. After a day or two it was decided that Miss Henne and I should return to Berlin. Telegrams were sent to my father and my mother. I wondered But is there any connection between Miss Henne's fit, the uprising of the extremists, and a snake being drawn up out of a basket?
When Miss Henne and I arrived back at the railway station at Berlin neither my father nor my mother were there to meet us. I thought this strange. There were not so many lorries and cars in the streets; there were occasional groups of men on street corners. Miss Henne and I had to walk because the trams were not working; men watched us as we went past; I wondered how it might be possible to make myself invisible. There was an extraordinary amount of litter in the streets paper and bits of metal and stone like things that have ended up at the bottom of the sea. Miss Henne rolled her head and muttered. I wondered if it would be proper to leave her and make a dash for the safety of our airship, if she began again to have a fit.
When we reached the door of our apartment at the top of the wide spiral staircase there were voices coming from inside; when Miss Henne knocked the voices stopped. After a time we could hear the door being unbolted; it was opened by my mother. Behind her in the hallway were a group of her friends: they were facing the door as if they were alarmed, or expecting to be photographed.
My mother held out her arms to me; she did not usually do this; it seemed that I had to be seen being embraced by my mother. My mother had a belt with a cold silver buckle on it. One of the people in the group behind my mother was Rosa Luxemburg. I thought Oh I suppose it is because of her that I am having to be embraced by my mother.
The people in the hallway began talking again; they moved off down the passage, led by Rosa Luxemburg. They seemed to be looking for something: there is that children's game in which an object is hidden and then you have to come in from another room and find it. In our apartment there was the hallway off which, on one side, was my father's study and the dining-room and the drawing-room; then the passage down which there was my mother and father's bedroom and then Helga and Magda's bedroom and the kitchen; my own bedroom and the bathroom and the airing cupboard were on the other side of the passage. Rosa Luxemburg led the way down the passage; she was like a goose or a duck with the rest of us following her. Miss Henne had disappeared as soon as she had delivered me at the door of the apartment. My father did not seem to be at home. I thought But we are being invaded: these people are taking over our airship.
We went first into my mother and father's bedroom; someone looked under the bed; someone looked in a cupboard. I thought What are we searching for: something that has been lost in the uprising of the extremists? My mother went to the end of the passage and knocked on the door of Helga and Magda's room; after a time Magda came out and stood with her back against the door; she put her arms out like a crucifix. Rosa Luxemburg spoke to Magda in her soft purring voice and after a time Magda lowered her arms and put her head on Rosa Luxemburg's shoulder; she seemed to weep. I thought There are illustrations like this in stories about myths. Someone opened the door into my bedroom; my mother seemed to protest; the door into my room was closed. Then Rosa Luxemburg left Magda and held her arms out to me. I thought I am to become part of this odd story? When I was in Rosa Luxemburg's arms she had a strange musty smell like something kept in a sack in an attic.
Amongst the group with my mother there were a young man and a girl whom I had not seen before; they were holding hands; they were not playing much part in the discussions. After a time I realised from the talk that the point of all this activity was not to find some hidden object, but to find some place where this young man and the girl might hide; they were being hunted, it seemed, perhaps by one of the groups of men in the streets; they had been brought by my mother's friends to our apartment for refuge.
Excerpted from HOPEFUL MONSTERS by Nicholas Mosley. Copyright © 1990 by Nicholas Mosley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.